How the Left Can Win Arguments
and Influence People

by John K. Wilson

New York University Press, 2001


What's wrong with America is not capitalism as a system but capitalism as a religion. We worship the accumulation of wealth and treat the horrible inequality between rich and poor as if it were an act of God.

How the Right Won the Culture Wars

The right's victory in the public sphere was not a triumph of logic over emotion or the victory of rational argument over inferior ideas. That's not how our system works. Progressives have failed to realize that winning an argument doesn't mean winning the war. Although more Americans than ever before share progressives ideas and although many of these leftist beliefs (including gender equality, racial equality, environmentalism, and support for many social programs) now dominate the mainstream, the left itself is losing ground as a political force.

The right wing won the culture wars in the same way they have taken control of our political system: with money. It's more complicated than that, of course, it always is. Part of the story includes clever organizing by the far right, the growing corporatization of the media, and the failure of the left to create an effective resistance. But ultimately, money mattered, and the right simply overwhelmed the progressives with its financial investment in an ideological struggle.

One small piece of this battle was in publishing. Virtually every important right-wing book in the 1990s was created and promoted with the help of tens of thousands (in some cases, hundreds of thousands) of dollars in support from right-wing foundations. From Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education to Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, from the National Review to the American Spectator, these ideas were subsidized and publicized, played up by op-eds and reviews written at right-wing think tanks, and aggressively promoted in the well-financed right-wing magazines.

D'Souza is a perfect example of how right-wing money helps shape the public debate over the culture wars. D'Souza entered the conservative network in college as editor of the Dartmouth Review, which reveled in printing racism, such as an interview with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke (illustrated on the cover with a photo of a black man being lynched on campus). The Review received a $10,000 grant from a conservative foundation in 1980, and numerous other right-wing papers were given similar funds to promote the campaign against what became known as "political correctness." After writing a fawning biography of Jerry Falwell, D'Souza was able to get a $30,000 grant from the Olin Foundation to write his book Illiberal Education, plus a $20,000 grant to promote the book and a $98,400 research fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute in 1991 when the book appeared. Since then, D'Souza has profited handsomely by the playing the role of a second-rate right-wing journalist turned public intellectual with the help of generous conservative money.

This doesn't mean that authors are moving to the right in order to make a buck (although it would be a rational plan for any upwardly mobile intellectual-I'm currently open to any and all offers of bribery to turn against the left). Instead, people who would toil in obscurity on the left are heavily promoted and subsidized because they're right-wingers. The right wing gives its people training and encouragement, money and promotion, think tank positions and "research" fellowships. The left, though, offers virtually nothing except the certainty of another leftist's criticism.

The right's money also bought it organizing strength. From the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition to the Promise Keepers, the religious right can mobilize a large number of people. Newt Gingrich himself was fined by Congress for illicitly funneling money from corporate friends to his personal nonprofit organizations (with the taxpayers paying for the tax deductions) in order to train the Republican activists he hoped would put him in the presidency.

Whining about the vast right-wing conspiracy is a popular sport among progressives, but it accomplishes remarkably little. Most people simply don't care about the gripes of poor oppressed leftists. Although it may be effective to point out the way that conservative foundations subsidize attack journalism that is depicted as objective scholarship in the mainstream media, progressives ultimately need to make arguments work on their own merits.

Conservatives argue that the conspiracy is really on the left, because large foundations such as Ford and MacArthur have liberal tendencies. Of course, this is true if you imagine that helping the poor is left-wing idea. Although many foundations are liberal leaning, they mostly serve the function of a shadow government, providing basic health, community, culture, and human services that the government offers in most other countries. The liberalism of foundations is a basic respect for all people, not a political ideology geared toward changing media coverage and government policies, as the conservative foundations aim to do.

In their book No Mercy, which analyzes how right-wing foundations won the culture wars, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic wrote:

America works best when it receives a roughly equal infusion of ideas from the right and the left. For nearly two decades, this balance has been tilting sharply. Today, society is out of kilter, the right in full cry, the left defeated and listless. Most new programs and initiatives come from the right. The left has had little to do with setting the country's agenda and seems unable to mount any sort of effective resistance to the conservative juggernaut.

To fight the right, progressives must organize an opposition to the current system that challenges the status quo and brings popular progressive ideas into mainstream debates.

... research showing the large number of mistakes made in death penalty cases and students investigating how innocent people are held on death row is far more effective than a thousand protests of chanting activists.

When protests are held too often on issues that are too familiar, the result is "protest fatigue." A protest every week on the outrage of the day soon bores the media, the politicians, the public, and the protesters themselves. The press might cover the protest, but it will include snide comments about the size of the crowd and only indifferent attention to the issue at hand. This doesn't mean that progressives need to abandon protests as a tactic but that protests need to be coordinated with other efforts.

One step in making a vast left-wing conspiracy is manipulating the media. All the leftist think tanks and experts in the world won't matter if the press continues to rely on the conservative and establishment figures for their sound bites.

Writing letters to the editor complaining about media bias and inaccuracy is a long-favored technique of conservatives. It's effective, too: most studies show that the letters column has more readers than the rest of the op-ed pages. Don Wycliff, public editor of the Chicago Tribune, noted late in the 2000 campaign that "virtually all the complaints about campaign coverage seem to come from the George W. Bush camp-or his camp followers." The conservatives rants powerfully influence the media by reinforcing the myth of the liberal media. When I complained to the media magazine Brill's Content about its choice of Newt Gingrich's pollster Frank Luntz to do a "neutral" poll about the media, Steven Brill responded that he chose Luntz because "we get criticized for being too much on the left." Brill's Content is a thoroughly mainstream corporate magazine, but conservatives are able to manipulate its content by force of complaint.

Simply writing a letter to the editor isn't enough: progressives need to call, write, and e-mail the reporters and news editors as well, to voice their concerns and suggest organizations and experts who should be contacted the next time something is written on this topic. And when your letter to the editor concerns state or national legislation, copies should also go to your representatives.

Conservatives in America have become professional whiners, complaining about the repression of their ideas at every turn, with catch-phrases about the "liberal media" or "political correctness" to prove their oppression. Progressives also need to learn how to whine, not how to grouse with one's comrades over a cup of java in some anticorporate coffeehouse, but how to whine effectively to the right people in the right way.

Progressives also need to create local and national media watchdog organizations that can apply pressure on the mainstream media. Refusing to allow the center-right media to be defined as "liberal" and pressuring reporters to include progressive ideas will have a ripple effect: politicians will pay attention to what the media are focusing on, and the public will support progressive ideas when they have an opportunity to hear them.

Progressives can't depend on the mainstream media to represent the ideas of the left. Instead, progressives need to create their own print, broadcast, and Internet media.


Letters to the editor are a powerful way of influencing the media and also getting progressive ideas in the public eye. Most national newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are highly selective, but many smaller community newspapers will publish just about anything. Here's a list of what to keep in mind:

Be nice. Never insult or question the credibility of the publication, even if it deserves it. One might hope that journalists had the courage to print scathing criticism of themselves, but don't bet on it. I've written dozens of letters that never saw print because of my excessive enthusiasm for telling the truth.

Keep it short. Remember, editors are lazy. They don't want to edit letters (but they sometimes will). They always prefer a concise letter to a long, rambling diatribe. And it's better to write a short letter than to have your argument cut to pieces because of space limitations. Look at the publication you're writing to in order to get a sense of the normal preferred length for letters.

Respond to the story. A letter is not the opportunity to fulfill your literary talents. Stay close to the piece you're writing about. Some newspapers will publish occasional letters from out of left field, but it's rare. If you feel inspiration on some subject, try submitting a op-ed if the newspaper accepts them, or wait for the right topic to pop up in the paper.

Write it quickly. If you mail a letter one week after a story appears, it will have virtually no chance of getting published in a major newspaper. Use e-mail, and respond within one day. That gives the editor more time to find a space for it, and readers are more likely to remember the original article.

Say something interesting. This is easier said than done, but it's crucial. Mere disagreement or outrage is not grounds for having a letter published. Finding an original position or an original way of phrasing an argument greatly increases the likelihood of having a letter accepted. Don't repeat an argument that's already been made (or attacked) in the op-ed pages-instead, try to surprise the op-ed editor with an idea that hasn't been considered. If you don't have a good idea, don't bother writing.

Do not quote anyone (unless you're repeating something from the original story). This is not the time (is there ever a time?) to haul out the Bartlett's for the perfect quotation from Shakespeare. Nor is it the time to quote Marx, Lenin, Chomsky, or anybody else. The Bible may be quoted against religious conservatives, but that's the only exception.

Use your status. If you are a professor or an expert on the topic, you should mention it in the byline. High-status writers are more likely to get published and to convince readers if their status is listed after their name in the newspaper.

Be aware of syndication. If you want to write something against a syndicated columnist, it's possible to write the same letter to many different newspapers, using the web to find out where the column appeared. Be careful: most newspapers hate this, and if you do it often, you'll end up on a letter-writing blacklist (no one will admit it, but every newspaper has a group of people it usually bars from publication). The major media will check to make sure you wrote the letter and haven't submitted it anywhere else.

Document your facts. If you are including facts or statistics (usually you shouldn't) that weren't published by the newspaper, include the references where this information can be checked (as a postscript). Editors don't want to print factual errors in the letter column, and it's easiest for them to throw a letter away if it includes any questionable numbers.

... American centrism is a philosophy of moderation and inaction, standing for nothing and hoping that everything goes well enough to avoid making any decisions.

Democratic centrists are people who wave with the latest political wind, measured by an ever-present poll. They stand on no principles except the Machiavellian principle of maintaining political power.

Centrism fails as a political philosophy because nobody, not even a centrist, believes in it. Most centrists in America are not ideologically stuck in the middle between the Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the procorporate policies of the Democratic Party and the procorporate policies of the Republican Party. Centrists in America are centrists because of their disillusionment with politics.

Ronald Reagan was widely liked and respected by a large part of the American people, even though his conservative policies ran counter to the prevailing will.

In 1998, 395 of 402 members of the House of Representatives ran for reelection and won - a reelection rate of more than 98 percent.

In many ways, the Democrats are a more corrupt party than the Republicans, because corporations buy influence in Washington in two ways: first, by giving large amounts of money to candidates who agree with their views (primarily Republicans) in order to help them get elected and, second, by giving large amounts of money to ambivalent candidates (primarily Democrats) to persuade them to support procorporate positions. While most Republicans are simply getting paid to vote their consciences, many Democrats are actively selling out in order to get the money they need for reelection.

Unfortunately, the power of money that has corrupted all of American politics has had its greatest impact on the Democratic Party. Big corporate donations don't fundamentally alter the Republicans' ideology. In the Democratic Party, though, the battle between the corporate centrists and the liberal left has been decisively won by the people with the most money.

The worst part of our corrupt campaign finance system is not the bribery but the apathy. The American people see a government that does not belong to them. When something is not yours, indifference is the consequence. The principal reason for public disgust with our government is the belief that our politicians are bought and sold by special interests with huge amounts of money. The only way to restore confidence in our government is not by sanctimonious, cliché-filled speeches urging greater public interest in elections but by altering the system that gives wealthy private interests so much control over our government.

The Myth of the Liberal Media

The accusation of a "liberal bias in the media is believed because it is repeated so often. From [Rush] Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy to Oliver North and a legion of lesser-known radio hosts, from the McLaughlin Group and Tony Snow to Thomas Sowell and the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages, "liberal media" have become the conservative pundit's favorite term. And because conservative voices outnumber progressive ones by a wide margin in the mainstream media, the cry of liberal bias usually goes unchallenged.

The constant attacks on a "liberal media" affect public opinion. A 1999 study by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of Republicans think that most journalists are more liberal than they are and 7 percent think journalists share their ideology. That's hardly surprising. But even 47 percent of Democrats see journalists as more liberal than they are, with 16 percent sharing their ideology and 28 percent perceiving journalists as more conservative.

Yet evidence of a "liberal bias" in the media doesn't exist. These conservative claims are based on a few shoddy studies and dubious anecdotes. The overwhelming number of conservative voices in the press complaining about "liberal bias"-and the near absence of progressives attacking the more clear-cut examples of conservative bias-is proof by itself that the left, not the right, is shut out of the mainstream media. The right's relentless attacks on the media help explain why so many people imagine that the media are "liberal." In the war of ideas, the left is winning the battles on the ground but watching the media report j them all as losses.

A 1998 study by Vassar sociology professor William Haynes found that the public affairs programs on PBS showed none of the liberal bias imagined by critics. In fact, PBS has been dominated by right-wing talk shows (such as Firing Line, McLaughlin Group, McLaughlin One on One) and uncritical business programs (Bloomberg Morning News, Morning and Nightly Business Reports, Wall Street Week). Corporate representatives and Wall Street sources accounted for 35.3 percent of the appearances, followed closely by professionals (primarily mainstream journalists and government officials (25.6 percent each). The general public and citizen activists accounted for only 10 percent of the sources, down from 18 percent in a similar study made six years earlier.

This is true mostly of the lower echelon of beginning journalists. At the level of high-priced "star" journalism-the John McLaughlins, the George Wills, the David Brinkleys, the Ted Koppels-no one believes that the conservatives are suffering. Once journalists reach the highest tax bracket, their concerns about the poor become more distant. Moreover, many of the media "stars" aren't really journalists at all. From Tony Snow (the only Sunday morning talk show host with a clear ideological perspective as a former Bush speechwriter) to George Will to Matt Drudge, the most influential media voices come from the mouths of conservative advocates.

Celebrity journalists are also lured by the money offered them to speak at corporate gatherings and conventions. From Cokie Roberts to most of the McLaughlin Group, tens of thousands of dollars are available to "journalists" ready to speak to powerful lobbying groups and corporations. Of course, none of them reveal to the public that they've taken large sums of money from companies with a direct interest in the policies they discuss. Progressives critiquing capitalism aren't paid tens of thousands of dollars to talk to capitalists; celebrity journalists would never be invited to give a liberal slant on the world for a hefty price tag.

Even if these rich journalists turn out to have a few liberal sympathies buried deep in their heart, it doesn't matter: the media conglomerates who hire them are concerned only with seeing media products made at the lowest possible cost and offering the highest possible profits.

The Conservative Bias of the Media

If you want to understand the nature (or bias) of a car, you look at the people who run the auto industry and the people they hire to design cars. The people who assemble the car in the factories are essential but not important: the autoworkers don't change the cars; they only make them correctly or badly. If someone discovered that autoworkers like Porsches, it wouldn't make a bit of difference to the Escorts they actually make.

Of course, journalism is not quite like auto assembly, but the resemblance is far greater than journalists or the public likes to imagine. The media create a consumable product, carefully arranged and directed. Reporters do what they're told and write in a standardized, "objective" manner about the topics they're assigned to cover. Editors monitor their work. The bosses decide who gets hired and fired. Conservatives are quick to complain and apply heavy pressure at the first sign of a "liberal" tendency in any reporting.

Right-wingers have been complaining about "liberal bias" for decades. They created organizations such as Accuracy in Media (AIM), the Media Research Center, and the American Enterprise Institute's Center for Media and Public Affairs to attack the mainstream press and promote conservative causes. The mainstream media are sensitive to the accusations of "liberal bias" and bend over backward to appease the far right. Then I criticized Steven Brill, the founder of the centrist media criticism magazine Brill's Content, for employing right-winger Frank Luntz to conduct a poll on media bias, Brill replied that he had chosen Luntz because "we get criticized for being too much on the left.")

Investigative reporter Robert Parry, who worked at the Associated Press and Newsweek, noted that "mainstream journalists lived with a constant career dread of being labeled 'liberal.' To be so branded opened a journalist to relentless attack by well-funded right-wing media 'watchdog' groups and other conservative operatives. AIM, for example, succeeded in having New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner removed from his Central America beat after he wrote about massacres by U.S.-supported troops. Many years later, UN excavations found that his reports were completely accurate." On the rare occasions when the media reveal the truth, they almost inevitably face condemnation from the far right for "liberal bias."

The money of the right wing buys more than just these well-financed "watchdog" groups to promote the myth of the liberal media. The conservative funding also finances right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, which provide easy jobs for conservatives who produce the sound bites and op-eds to fill up the mainstream news stories and editorial pages. According to a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), more than half the think tanks cited in the Lexis-Nexis database of media coverage each year are right leaning (51 percent in 1999). About one-third (35 percent in 1999) are centrist think tanks such as the Brookings Institution (which is headed by a Republican), but far fewer (13 percent in 1999) represent progressive perspectives. Because the ideology behind the conservative think tanks is rarely identified by reporters, the conservative bias of sources goes unnoticed. Although many progressive think tanks exist (including the Economic Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the World Policy Institute), media professionals don't like to use them.

Conservative think tanks usually have more money than progressive ones, because the right is willing to serve wealthy corporate interests. Conservative pundits are often quite willing to sell their services. Former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey Ross wrote to the president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America asking the lobbying group "to support my work at the Hudson Institute, because my writings on healthcare policy can make a substantial difference in public opinion and in the nation's capital. My track record proves it." As intellectuals for hire, the right offers journalists mouthpieces for corporate America with the veneer of neutrality provided under the guise of a think tank.

The reason for excluding left-wing views isn't an aversion to radical ideas, for the most popular conservative think tank is the libertarian Cato Institute, which promotes many views far out of the mainstream. Nor are progressive think tanks excluded because of their own failure to contact journalists, since many left-leaning think tanks seek media coverage more aggressively than do the better-funded conservative think tanks. The main problem is that reporters seem to be biased toward presenting political debates as a battle between the right and the center. Because the left is excluded from American politics, it's also excluded from the American media.

On virtually every issue, journalists usually head straight to the government experts, conservative pundits, and corporate PR hacks, ignoring progressive voices. The 1996 Greenberg survey found that the groups that journalists "nearly always" consulted on economic issues were government officials (51 percent), business representatives (31 percent), think-tank analysts (17 percent), university academics (10 percent, who in the field of economics typically lean to the right), and Wall Street analysts (9 percent). By contrast, labor representatives (5 percent) and consumer advocates (5 percent) are far less likely than business representatives and their supporters to appear in these news stories. When reporters who support the status quo quote the representatives of the status quo, where could there be any "left-wing" bias?

... the Fox News Network was started by billionaire Rupert Murdoch and is run by Roger Ailes, the head of George Bush's 1988 campaign for president. Murdoch similarly bankrolls the right-wing New York Post (which loses $20 million a year) and the right-wing magazine, the Weekly Standard, to provide a far right alternative to the center-right mainstream media.

Murdoch also eliminated the BBC World Service Television from his Asian satellite network after the Chinese government objected.

Richard Mellon Scaife's fortune enables him to finance right-wing causes through his foundation (such as financing the American Spectator magazine) as well printing the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which featured Christopher Ruddy's front-page anti-Clinton conspiracy theories that both Vince Foster and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had been murdered.

There are good economic reasons that media conglomerates wish to avoid being labeled as conservative, even if their reporting generally is. Media corporations are in the business of making money, not ideology. A newspaper that explicitly tilts far to the right would alienate too many readers and create the opportunity for genuine progressive competition. Although newspaper subscribers and other news consumers tend to be wealthier and more conservative than the general population (in part because the absence of progressive media drives many people away from the news media altogether), news consumers are still more progressive at heart than the American political establishment, which is biased toward those who can attract enough donations to win an election.

Media conglomerates also have good economic reasons to avoid challenging the political establishment. During the debate over the 1995 Telecommunications Act, media conglomerates gave $2 million to politicians over a six-month period in an attempt at influence peddling. Not surprising, few reporters offered serious investigative reporting of their own company's attempt to buy favorable legislation, and as a result, this massive giveaway of tens of billions of dollars in public airwaves went largely unnoticed by the public.

Unlike progressives, the conservatives also have the advantage of media exclusively devoted to their ideas: a cable news channel (Fox) that is explicitly to the right of the mainstream, numerous religious TV and radio networks that promote their causes without any of the "objectivity" inhibitions of the mainstream media, and many radio talk shows, led by Rush Limbaugh, that allow conservatives to push their values without opposition. The conservative media help spread the myth of liberal bias, since the mainstream media certainly do seem a little liberal when compared with Limbaugh.

Only in the realm of magazines, with high-quality products such as Mother Jones, Harper's, The Nation, In These Times, the American Prospect, and Z Magazine, have progressives competed effectively against the better-funded right-wing counterparts of the National Review, the American Spectator, and the Weekly Standard. But these progressive magazines tend to preach to the choir-although their investigative journalism is excellent, the information rarely reaches the mainstream public. While the far right concentrates on reaching the mainstream media, the left struggles to keep a few small magazines alive.

The big reason for this disparity is money.

The word media is a plural noun. But after a wave of mergers, monopolization, and homogenization in recent years, "the media" need to be considered a singular entity. The media not only act as our eyes and ears, they also help shape our thoughts by providing the information that tells us what we ought to think.

While conservatives frequently attack "liberal bias" among news reporters (despite the lack of evidence that their personal views are truly left wing or affect the reporting), the only place where biases are openly expressed is on the op-ed pages. Here conservatives dominate the debate of ideas. As presidential endorsements show, most newspapers lean to the right in their editorial perspective, and conservatives dominate syndicated columns. According to a 1999 survey by Editor and Publisher magazine, the leading syndicated columnists are right-wingers. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, leads the pack by appearing in 550 papers, followed closely by fellow right wingers Cal Thomas, Robert Novak, and George Will, all of whose columns appear in more than 480 papers. Several other conservatives make the list of 250 or more papers, including Mona Charen, Thomas Sowell, Morton Kondracke, Joseph Perkins, and Ben Wattenberg. Meanwhile, the only liberals appearing in at least 250 newspapers are Ellen Goodman (425) and Molly Ivins (250+), along with the left-leaning Nat Hentoff (250), and centrists Art Buchwald (250+) and David Broder (300).

Conservatives also are able to express their ideas more openly on television. There is no liberal counterpart to John McLaughlin or William F. Buckley with a weekly program on PBS, nor a left-wing news network to counter the explicitly conservative Fox News Network, nor a leftist critiquing society with the freedom that John Stossel of 20/20 has on ABC.

Stossel is quite open about his right-wing bias: "I have come to believe that markets are magical and the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market." Stossel reports not only on 20/20, he also has a full-time staff to produce several "documentaries" a year on topics such as greed (which is good) and organic food (which is bad). Stossel regularly speaks to corporate clients for large fees and donates some of his fees to the conservative Palmer Chitester Fund that promotes-coincidentally enough-the Stossel in the Classroom program to push his free-market ideas in schools.

The problem with the media is not the presence of conservatives such as Stossel but the absence of contrary views. Leftists should not seek to silence Stossel, despite his one-sided programs and their questionable accuracy. Rather, it's the silencing of progressive voices that must be the greater concern; a bland centrism without critical voices from the left or the right would be no better than the status quo. The main problem is that a leftist version of Stossel would be fired almost immediately by his corporate bosses if an advertising boycott organized by the far right didn't get rid of him first. Conservatives such as Stossel create the opportunity for progressives to demand that the other side of the story must be heard.

Even a supposedly "liberal" medium such as public broadcasting is heavily controlled by its advertisers (or "sponsors," since advertising is technically, but not actually, prohibited). National Public Radio has a daily Business Report but no Labor Report. When a producer attempted to create a labor-oriented public television show, the Public Broadcasting System refused to allow it on the grounds that funding from labor unions compromised its objectivity-even though numerous probusiness programs are sponsored by corporations.

Truth at War: Journalists and the Military

During peacetime, the media rarely challenge political authority. But when war begins, the critical role of the press disappears almost completely, and it becomes a propaganda agent for the Pentagon. As Dan Rather observed in his 1999 book Deadlines and Datelines, "The fact is, and the record shows, American journalists as a whole are, and have been over the years, decidedly promilitary. Foreign reporters and other international observers often accuse us of favoring our armed forces, and they're right. We try not to show our bias, but it manifests itself almost every time U.S. military forces are deployed anywhere in the world."

Even during peacetime, the military maintains close relations with the media. Dutch reporter Abe de Vries revealed that in 1999, CNN employed army propaganda experts from the Fourth Psychological Operations Group. Major Thomas Collins of the U.S. Army Information Service declared that the "psyops personnel" worked at CNN in Atlanta as "regular employees of CNN" as part of the army's "Training with Industry" program and "helped in the production of news."

Although reporters' patriotism is one reason that critical reporting disappears during a war, journalists have a genuine problem getting independent information when government secrecy is considered acceptable. During the Gulf War and other major conflicts, the Pentagon maintained strict censorship over reporters and provided the pictures it wants to show, to the point of deceiving journalists and the public about the accuracy of its bombing missions that killed thousands of civilians in Iraq. Indeed, most of the debates over wartime policy reflect internal Pentagon arguments, not the perspective of those who believe that war is unnecessary. When the bombs fall, the standards of journalism fall with them.

Most journalism bears no resemblance to aggressive investigative journalism. In fact, most media coverage bears no connection to journalism: it's entertainment, weather, features, sports, comics, and, most of all, advertising, with a small news hole. The main goal of most TV news departments is to produce cheap, ratings-driven features; most informational radio is devoted to the same news headlines repeated every ten minutes or to talk shows that tilt wildly to the right and are freed from any journalistic standards. Even newspapers devote surprisingly little space to actual news. It's simply not a priority: at the Chicago Tribune, one sports columnist is paid $225,000, twice as much as the maximum for any news editor. When infotainment reigns supreme over investigative journalism, the news will deviate little from the establishment's views.

The Media on Crack: Covering Up for the CIA

In August 1996, journalist Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News shook the world with a series of articles revealing links between the CIA's operations and drug dealing, including some of the major figures who helped launch the crack epidemic during the 1980s in California. If the media were liberal or even neutral, the reaction should have been predictable: widespread praise, a Pulitzer Prize and other honors, and follow-up investigations on the ties between the U.S. government and all sorts of loathsome characters.

Instead, Webb faced a smear campaign from all the top newspapers, an attack unprecedented in the history of journalism. His colleagues seemed determined to undermine his articles, and when it proved impossible to refute fairly what he had written, they went after an absurd hyperbole of his journalism.

Webb's CIA/crack story is still probably the most widely read piece of journalism ever written. Webb, who for his series was named "Journalist of the Year" by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, lost his job over this solid piece of investigative reporting, a clear example of how the media regulate journalists who dare examine an issue embarrassing to our government.

Webb's series revealed far more than the fact that the CIA was willing to overlook drug dealing in its relentless efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. It exposed the mainstream media's role as apologists for the authorities. It was bad enough that major newspapers ignored the CIA-contra-crack link when the information was first uncovered in the 1980s by a congressional investigation. But to launch a crusade against the journalist who printed the important news they had overlooked amounted to sacrificing journalistic ethics for professional jealousy.

As Webb himself noted, "Nothing in their stories says there is anything wrong with what I wrote. In fact, they have confirmed every element of it." But the mainstream press spun the evidence indicating CIA involvement as if it were an exoneration, based on the strange idea that Webb had asserted some kind of CIA conspiracy attempted to push crack in certain neighborhoods.

The Webb case offers several lessons to progressives. First, it should eliminate any delusions about the willingness of the mainstream press to ignore stories that question powerful institutions. The more important and revealing a story is, the less likely it will ever appear in the establishment press. Progressives should also be aware of how dangerous it can be to associate with radical conspiracy theories. In the Webb case, journalists and government officials used the most extreme rumors to dismiss the most accurate reporting.

When the pressure from the mainstream media grew intense, San Jose Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos buckled, apologizing for Webb's investigation. Webb's follow-up stories-proving that what he had written was accurate and expanding the investigation-weren't published. As retaliation, Webb was eventually exiled to the newspaper's Cupertino bureau, far away from his family and from any compelling stories to report. No longer allowed to be an investigative journalist, Webb resigned.

In the end, the title of Webb's series, "Dark Alliance," proved to be prescient. But rather than simply revealing a dark alliance between the CIA and pro-contra Nicaraguan drug dealers, his case showed a dark alliance between the media and the political establishment to conceal embarrassing evidence of misbehavior by government officials that helped spread the devastating epidemic of drugs in America.

Conclusion: The Reign of the Conservative Media

Why do Americans perceive a liberal media? One reason is the I mythology of the media: we still imagine journalists to be like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who aggressively pursued President Nixon's crimes and forced him out of office. The fact that so few journalists (not even Woodward and Bernstein) act that way anymore, or ever did, doesn't stop the myth from persisting.

Another reason that people perceive the media as liberal is that the public tends to notice only unusual reporting. There is a conservative baseline for the media that the public has taken as the norm: when the media follow the status quo, nobody sees it. But if the media on rare occasions actually investigate the political establishment, it sticks in people's minds. So they perceive the media as liberal, perhaps because the public sees the even greater conservative control over the political mainstream.

According to conservatives, corporate America is the victim of a devious liberal media conspiracy. Big media corporations hire liberal reporters who attack them. Big corporations advertise in these proliberal newspapers. Wealthy, conservative people subscribe to these proliberal newspapers. Yet the well-paid "liberal" journalists, like the lovable prisoners in Hogan's Heroes who run a spy operation under Colonel Klink's monocled eye, secretly evade their profit-hungry bosses, their advertisers, and their readers in order to spread the message of the left through various secret codes cleverly inserted into those stories passively quoting government officials and business executives.

The conservative conspiracy theories don't make any sense. Millionaire TV anchors twisting the news in favor of the poor? Corporate executives applauding the journalists who attack the companies they run? Liberal bias isn't a profitable endeavor. It goes against every rule of capitalism and journalism for liberal bias to dominate the media. In a free market, a liberal media bias could never survive. And it hasn't.

Why, then, do the charges of liberal bias stick? Because Rush Limbaugh and a legion of right-wing talk show hosts and opinion writers regularly repeat that the media are liberal, and the absence of progressive voices in the mainstream media makes it difficult for the opposing view to be heard. For the media owners, allegations of a liberal bias make it easier for them to impose the conservative bias they prefer. For the pseudoliberals who work in the media system, confessing to a liberal bias is far more comfortable than admitting that they've sold out their beliefs for a nice salary. It's only because the mainstream media is so conservative that all these right-wing pundits can make accusations of liberal bias without opposition.

Progressives do, however, bear some responsibility for the perception that the media are liberal. Although a few organizations point out the media's conservative bias (most notably Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) and a few progressive magazines haphazardly discuss it, many leftists would rather march in a protest than write a letter to the editor.

One mistake many progressives make is to try to defend the media against conservative attacks. Staying on the defensive only makes it seem like the media really are liberal. While it is important to refute inaccurate conservative allegations of liberal bias, the best way to do that is by going on the offensive and pointing out the procorporate, right-wing bias at every opportunity.

Progressives can change the conservative bias of the media and challenge the media biases at every turn. Letters to the editor, calls to radio talk shows, participation in media watch organizations-all these tactics are important to counter the public's misperception of a liberal media and to present a progressive perspective on various issues. Equally important is the creation of alternative media-newspapers, magazines, web sites, radio programs, cable access programs-that provide a place for stories and perspectives excluded from the mainstream media.

By demanding an equal place in the media, progressives can swing the political debate in their direction. In a political system corrupted by money, progressives will always be at a disadvantage. But if progressive ideas can be heard in the media, the left will have an advantage in shaping the future of American politics.


How the Left Won (and Lost) the "Battle in Seattle"

Victory isn't easy for the left, even when it wins. One example in which progressives did almost everything right (but nevertheless was widely attacked) was the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) hearings in Seattle. Thanks to the hard work of leftists around the country (and the world), Seattle was overrun by more than 50,000 protesters who were determined to bring public attention to a powerful, secretive trade group.

A huge rally organized by labor groups brought tens of thousands marching through Seattle, complete with union workers and environmentalists in sea turtle costumes. Thousands of protesters linked arms and prevented the opening session of the WTO from meeting.

Most of the media coverage blamed the protesters for property damage that was planned and caused by anarchists and not stopped by the police.

But the protesters did have a powerful effect on the scene, where the bias of the American media was less important to the delegates, many of whom sympathized with some of the protests. President Clinton, the world's leading trend detector, expressed his support for listening to the peaceful protesters, showing that he was more alert to the persuasive power of the anti-WTO forces than most of the media.

Seattle and Washington left the left with many lessons. The first was never to let the media choose what the issue would be. Unfortunately, journalists (and their editors) are trained to overlook an important point for the sake of a flashy image and to portray a dramatic confrontation rather than a moral cause. This doesn't excuse the inaccurate reporting, biased attacks, and unquestioning defense of the authorities that filled most of the front pages and TV news about the WTO and IMF demonstrations. The progressives failed to spin the issue beyond their simple anti-WTO message. The reasons for opposing the WTO got some mention, but the idea of an alternative international organization built on genuine "free trade" and the protection of basic human rights never was aired.

The left has become so accustomed to being ignored that progressives have wisely refined the attention-grabbing techniques of theatrical protest that can convey a simple message. Unfortunately, the left hasn't developed the difficult techniques of bringing more complex arguments into the public debate, and the result is that progressive views seem shallow and emotional compared with the more extensive coverage of the ideas of the right and the center in the mainstream media.

Still, Seattle was both a success and an opportunity lost. The left brought attention to an organization without many redeeming values, but it never was able to launch a serious debate about what the alternative global values should be.

Ignoring the massive evidence of police misconduct and brutality, the media served a well-defined role as gatekeepers of the truth. When the media criticized Seattle officials, it was for "permitting" the peaceful protestors to exercise their right to protest instead of shutting down the city, as happened for the rest of the WTO meetings.

Still, the inability of the left to unify their ideas as easily as they unified behind the physical protest made it possible for many of the media errors to go unchallenged. Imagine if all the groups united behind the WTO protests had planned to meet after the initial melee and formulate a united response.

How Progressives Differ from Conservatives

... Conservatives have power but not popularity-the public hates their ideas, but their well-financed influence over the media and politics more than compensates for this failing. As a result, conservatives must constantly engage in a campaign of deceit by disguising what they believe in order to avoid alienating the American people.

Progressives have popularity but not power-the public would like their ideas if the left could ever have them taken seriously by the political and media powers-that-be. As a result, progressives must not imitate conservative tactics of deception. The notion that success in American politics requires moving rhetorically to the center in order to conceal one's true ideas is a tactic that applies only to the conservatives, who have manipulated the political process because they have no other choice.

Progressives don't need to lie; they need to overcome their power deficit.

The Defense Industry

The enormous peacetime military budget is the largest single source of corporate welfare, but until the 1980s it was relatively small. The massive increases during the Reagan administration, however, gave defense contractors considerable profits to invest in lobbying activities.

The Defense Department is the most wasteful part of our government, and yet no one proposes ending the military as we know it. The stories about a $640 toilet seat and a $437 tape measure are infamous. Less well known is the fact that between 1985 and 1995, the Defense Department "lost" $13 billion handed out to weapons contractors, and another $15 billion could not be accounted for. Now the Pentagon has spent millions to subsidize corporate mergers of defense contractors. It's probably the only example of a customer eagerly paying to reduce the competition available.

The military dominance of the United States over the rest of the world is unparalleled in human history. No great empire- not Egypt, not Rome, not anyone-has ever before had such complete power over the entirety of the Earth. Most of the nations of the world would have difficulty killing even a single American soldier during a devastating U.S. attack.

In the past, the military budget was justified by the need to stay above the Soviet Union's military spending. With that Communist empire lying in ruins and its defense forces almost eviscerated, what possible reason could there be to continue running up cold war defense budgets? At the time of its war with the United States, Iraq had one of the most powerful military forces in the Third World, and it suffered one of the most lopsided losses in history.

Even during the cold war, the military budget was inflated far beyond reasonable needs. Future historians will certainly look back at America in the 1980s and 1990s and marvel that a country could waste so much money buying billion-dollar toys for its generals to play with.

Today, the military-industrial-political complex scrambles to invent new excuses for the bloated defense budget. With imaginary scenarios of fighting two major wars simultaneously (something the United States has never done before and almost certainly would not need to do), hawks try to justify growing the defense budget far beyond its needs.

There is no military need for the current size of the Defense Department. Our permanent, large standing army spread around the world is an anomaly leftover from the cold war- never before has the United States maintained such a huge force during peacetime. Now that the cold war is over, it's time to return to a more reasonable military force. By eliminating many foreign military bases that could be staffed by our allies (our economic competitors in Japan and Germany currently are subsidized by American defense spending) and by slowly reducing our standing army, the United States can be adequately protected by its current high-tech weapons and by a large force of reserves that, as in the Gulf War, can easily be called up for active duty. Reserve forces are much cheaper than a standing army and also allow our soldiers to contribute to the economy.

Ultimately, the military strength of the United States for the next century will not depend on how many expensive explosive toys it has at the moment or the size of its standing army. Rather, U.S. security will depend on its economic growth and the education of its citizens. Future wars will be more computerized than ever, and a poorly educated standing army will be far less important than a well-educated citizenry. Today, wars are essentially fought with money, and diverting some current military funding to pay off the debt will do far more to increase our future military potential than spending it today on weapons that will quickly be outdated.

Much of the United States' military budget and foreign aid is used to subsidize defense contractors with plants in influential districts and to buy weapons that are ultimately used to kill innocents and even American soldiers. The United States exports 60 percent of the weapons sold worldwide, weaponry that is then used to justify even more defense spending. A secret FBI report revealed that it was a U.S. AN-M41 fragmentation bomb that exploded in Santo Domingo, Colombia on December 13,1998, killing at least nineteen civilians, including several small children (the Colombian military had blamed the bombing on leftists). The bomb was part of the billions of dollars worth of weaponry given by the United States to military dictatorships around the world. News of how American weapons were being used to murder innocents did not stop Congress and the Clinton administration from giving $1.3 billion in military aid to Colombia in the name of stopping the drug trade. The massive military-industrial complex promotes war around the world, not peace.

Progressives don't need to argue for dismantling the military. To the contrary, the left ought to propose a military budget that will make the United States by far the most powerful military force in the world. But thanks to all the waste in the Defense Department and the end of the cold war, the United States could dominate the world while spending about half of what it currently does. Progressives don't need to urge extensive cuts that might make the United States a second-rate military force: a gradual reduction of the military budget to $150 billion to $200 billion a year would still make America the dominant power in the world and easily capable of all necessary military action. All that extra money (about $1 trillion per decade) could be used for debt reduction and investment in education to increase the long-term military security of the United States.

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